What we put in our bodies can have a major impact on how we feel throughout treatment, so it’s important to think of good nutrition as part of your treatment plan, and to make it a priority.
Healthy, nutrient-rich foods help damaged cells and tissues heal, play a role in keeping your immune system strong, and can fight fatigue at a time when it can be hard to keep your energy and strength up. Wondering what this might look like? Consider the following tips to help you get started!
Variety is the spice of life! And also the key to a healthy diet. Try to introduce a variety of foods into your meals or snacks. Aim for a rainbow effect – the more colors on your plate, the more likely you are to be getting a good balance of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, as well as a mix of protein, fats (not all fats are bad!), and carbohydrates (not all carbs are bad, either!).
Master the art of snacking. It can be a lot easier to focus on finishing small snacks throughout the day rather than sitting down to a huge meal when you don’t have an appetite. You’d be surprised at how many calories you can successfully nosh on even when you aren’t feeling well, if you make them bite-sized. Keeping something in your stomach by snacking throughout the day can also help alleviate nausea.
Calories can come from drinks, too. If you can’t stomach the thought of eating “real food,” consider sipping calories instead. Smoothies, Popsicles, veggie or fruit juices, milk, and soup are all options for increasing your calorie intake. Be mindful of drinks that may have a lot of added sugars, such as certain juices or sodas. Also, consider avoiding caffeinated drinks, which are actually dehydrating and can leave you feeling sluggish after the energizing effect wears off.
Speaking of fluids, just say yes! Staying well-hydrated is an important part of feeling good. Most people aren’t very good at this even when they’re not sick, so it can be extra difficult to keep up with an adequate fluid intake when you are dealing with nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. But dehydration can make us feel tired, cause headaches, and make it harder for our bodies to get rid of waste. Tricks to improve your intake include carrying a water bottle with you wherever you go, and using a straw (weird, but true – we tend to drink more when we use straws!).
Consider setting a timer to remind yourself throughout the day to drink, and get creative with sources of fluids. Milk, Popsicles, Jell-O, ice cream or sherbet, caffeine-free soda, decaffeinated coffee or tea, and soup can all be counted toward your fluid intake. Ask your doctor or nurse how many ounces of fluid you should be aiming for each day.
Consider a citrus squeeze. Citrus fruits like lemon, lime, and orange are flavorful and refreshing, and they do a good job of cutting through weird metallic-y taste changes that you might experience with certain chemotherapy treatments. Adding slices to your water can help it taste better and make you more likely to drink. Be aware that acidic foods, like citrus, might be extra irritating to your mouth if you experiencing mucositis.
Safety first! Some cancer treatments, like chemotherapy, can put us at higher risk for infection. This makes choosing what we eat and how we prepare our food extra important. Proper hand-washing is a simple and effective prevention method – as long as you do it correctly! Wash with soap and water before and after meals, and throughout food preparation to prevent cross-contamination between raw and cooked foods. Thoroughly rinse all fresh fruits and veggies. Stay away from unpasteurized, raw, or under cooked food (I know, I know, I love sushi too… sorry!). Be sure to follow any specific precautions you are given by your provider, including special precautions for when you are neutropenic (when you have extra low white blood cell counts).
Vitamins, minerals, herbals, oh my! Supplements are tricky. Some may be beneficial, and some can be harmful. Many have not been well studied for overall benefits and harms, and many are not FDA-approved or regulated. There is also a risk of certain supplements interacting with prescribed medicines and chemo-therapies. Because of this, it’s really important to have a conversation with you provider if you are interested in taking any nutritional or herbal supplements during your treatments to make sure they are safe.
Talk to a professional. Ask your clinic if there are registered dietitians available that specialize in working with people who have cancer, and schedule an appointment. These experts can answer questions and help you to create an individualized nutrition plan based on your treatments, needs, and side effects. It’s worth it!
For more information, check out:
American Cancer Society – Nutrition for the Person with Cancer During Treatment
National Cancer Institute – Eating Hints
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center – About Herbs, Botanicals, & Other Products
National Institute of Health – National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health